If Rick Carlisle had his way, any network that pays the NBA big bucks to support the private jets, the high salaries, the nice locker rooms and the amazing practice facilities has zero right to provide any content that might stir up a controversy for a team or, heaven forbid, one of his fellow coaches. That, in essence, is what Carlisle offered in a pugnacious, dismissive style yesterday at a press conference. Put bluntly, he was trying to intimidate the sports media from doing its job.
The cause of Carlisle's anger is the NBA's current court jester, LaVar Ball, who can provide some compelling flavor in a professional sports world that is too full of sanitized quotes and teams who prevent access to star players. Should Ball be the story? In many cases, not really, because he is an attention hound. That said, he also is the father of the second pick in last year's NBA draft, and that player is a member of one of the league's highest profile franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers. On most days, Ball is a side show, and the media has come around to treating him as such, someone who is famous, like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, for being famous.
But that doesn't mean that LaVar Ball cannot provide compelling news. His quote the other day that the Lakers' players were unhappy and that head coach Luke Walton has lost the locker room is, whether Carlisle likes it or not, news. That quote compels beat reporters to dig in and discern whether this is LaVar Ball's opinion, whether LaVar Ball is relaying his son's opinion, or whether LaVar Ball is relaying his son's report that other players have come to the same conclusion. Yes, a lot of the above is hearsay, but that is why beat reporters dig in, cover the story and report.
Many have criticized the media over this story, and Carlisle is not the only one. There are those who offer that the media should not be listening to LaVar Ball or giving him an audience. There are those who want to disqualify Ball automatically because his acts like a court jester and seems to say something almost daily that will draw him a headline. And then there is Carlisle, who offered that ESPN should do whatever it can to make the league look good.
Carlisle is a good coach and a bright guy; he didn't get a degree from the prestigious University of Virginia for nothing. His point also has some logic to it, namely, that if ESPN plays big money for the rights to the NBA and wants to offer an outstanding product to viewers, it should endeavor to make the league look as good and robust as possible, presumably, even though Carlisle didn't say it, to make the league look more attractive to fans, who will tune in more, which, in turn, will make the product more compelling to advertisers, who will drive up rates, which will help ESPN's revenues, enable it to pay more for rights in the future, which will enable the teams to make more money and, accordingly, pay the Rick Carlisles of the world more, all the while giving them fewer headaches in the form of the self-appointed and by far best quote in the NBA this year. Got it?
Good, because the logic is as good as far is it goes. Look, I think that ESPN is not pure journalism, and it's original name, the "Entertainment and Sports Programming Network" suggests that it is more entertainment and less journalism. But the journalism is there -- in E60, Thirty for Thirty, "Outside the Lines" and other stories that they cover. And so long as it is there, they have the right, and perhaps even if in their at times conflicted role (whose Achille's heel Carlisle's comments tweak) to cover a story for which the main source is none other than LaVar Ball.
That said, ESPN has put itself in this awkward position -- paying big bucks for the rights but also positing itself as the premier provider in the U.S. of sports news along with content. It has tenacious reporters who love to be the first source for a story, including Seth Wickersham, Adrian Wojnaroski and many others. So, it stands to reason that if something is rotten in the Lakers' locker room, ESPN should be covering it. And U.S. coaches and managers have it relative easy compared to soccer coaches/managers around the world, where the journalistic competition is fierce to break the hot story about what currently is making or breaking a football squad. You might need to have a thick skin in the U.S.; in Europe, you need cast-iron underwear.
Reporting is a critical aspect of our society, and the better and more thorough the reporting the better off we all are. Tremendous, withering criticism has been sent the media's way because of the way it has covered certain events (or not covered them) over time. Emotions are high; allegations of "fake" news abound, even when the news is real and the accuser wants to deflect attention away from himself or the issues that are bedeviling him. The press isn't perfect, and neither are the sources. But it stands to reason that a credible person can be wrong on occasion and someone viewed as an abject nut case can be right. And that is the journalist's job to figure out -- is LaVar right, or is he spouting off again, the NBA's version of "Old Faithful."